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What Is Sanctity? Fr. Justin Gable, OP
Fr. Justin Gable, OP
What is sanctity? In what does holiness really consist? You probably remember that wonderful quote from Augustine on the nature of time: “What then, is time?” ask St. Augustine. “If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book XI, Ch. 14, Sec. 17) We could apply this quote to the idea of sanctity as well. We seem to recognize it when we see it, but it is certainly hard to define it. We seem to sense that there must be something that all saints as such seem to share, but what is it?
We might look first to defining sanctity in terms of certain opinions or personality traits that all saints have. Certainly all the saints believe in God, but so, then, do a number of sinners—indeed, says St. James, “You believe that God is one? You do well. But even the demons believe—and shudder.” (James 2:19) So it must be more than believing in God. And it would be hard to nail down a personal trait or set of traits that we could identify with sanctity. We find saints with all sorts of dispositions and characters. We have St. Jerome, for instance, who despite his asceticism and apparent love for the Church and the Scriptures, seems to have been something of a curmudgeon. I find the correspondence between St. Augustine and St. Jerome to be quite delightful—on the one hand, you have St. Augustine, who is respectful and courteous, even complimentary to the aging St. Jerome; on the other hand, you have a very curt, surly St. Jerome who stops just short of calling St. Augustine names when there is a difference of opinion. If we equate holiness with being gracious, thoughtful, or having good manners, it seems the Church has made a mistake in canonizing someone like St. Jerome. This is a good reminder for us—that saintliness does not always come in predictable or socially acceptable forms!
We do quite often confuse saintliness with certain personality traits. It is easy to mistake a quiet, unassuming, or even passive personality with prayerfulness, or good manners or being nice with authentic love. But personality or disposition isn’t the same thing as holiness. Personality traits are our natural tendency. To a large extent they are the product of genetics or environment, but they do not necessarily require any reflection or conscious choice on our part for their exercise. We may, for instance, have a young man who is naturally gregarious, or another who is more instinctively taciturn. Neither of these descriptions necessarily describes a virtue, although perhaps we may prefer one kind of personality to the other. And we must remember that saints, as often as not, were difficult people to live with. And here I’m not just talking about potentially surly saints like St. Jerome! The saints’ strange ascetic practices could be strange and off-putting—here we might think of St. Rose of Lima walking around with a boulder on her back. The reforming zeal of saints like Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Charles Borromeo could try the patience of both their friends and enemies. Often saints have neglected ordinary, everyday cares to attend to prayer, penance, or preaching. Blessed John Paul II was notorious for his tardiness, often being hours late to a meeting (even before he was Pope). And have you ever wondered what effects St. Francis’ embrace of “Lady Poverty” must have meant for his personal hygiene? We are quickly disabused of the idea that saints are by nature courteous, thrifty, clean, and reverent by simply opening a good book on the lives of the saints.
Certainly we know enough about the saints, too, to be able to dismiss the idea that the saints are saints because they never committed serious sin. Certainly there are saints who seem to have avoided any mortal sin in their lifetimes: there is, of course, our Blessed Mother, who was born without sin; there are child saints like St. Dominic Savio or Blessed Imelda Lambertini who seem to have been too young to commit any serious sin; and there are even adults who, even at the time of their death, seem to embody a remarkable innocence for their age. Both St. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas belong in this category. Both saints were said to have had “childlike confessions” at the end of their lives. We should rightly admire such purity of life, but it is rather more the exception than the rule.
Many notorious sinners have become saints: we’ve already mentioned St. Augustine, who prayed, “O God make me good, but not yet!” Even if we do not quite believe that St. Augustine was as much the villain as he makes himself out to be in his Confessions, still there is little doubt—having had a mistress and a child out of wedlock, among many other transgression—that he did in fact struggle with some serious sins. And St. Augustine is not alone. We might also think of St. Mary of Egypt, whose notorious nymphomania was only overcome by a miracle. Other saints with questionable pasts include St. Dismas, the good thief crucified with Jesus, and St. Hippolytus, the one-time antipope who was reconciled to the Church prior to his martyrdom. And there are many others. So it is not the achievement of never falling into sin that distinguishes a saint. And this is a good thing. For most of us, such a requirement would mean our having to immediately give up on becoming saints ourselves, for the fact is that most of us have had our missteps. Most of us have a past that would not entirely bear up under scrutiny. But sainthood is not about attaining the dream of a perfect past.
So what, then, do all the saints have in common? The answer is amazingly simple, but important: the Love of God. The saints were not perfect people, nor were they necessarily people you would want to live with day in and day out. When we examine the lives of the saints, we will find energetic go-getters, contemplative introverts, and curmudgeonly hermits; we will discover saints that are beautiful, intelligent and powerful, but also—and perhaps more often—saints that are ugly, simple, and of virtually no account in the eyes of the world. But what the saints all have in common is that they are utterly, completely, and fully in love with God, if I may use the expression. God is the center of their life, and in comparison with God, nothing is truly important. Doing God’s will is their food and sustenance; pleasing God with their words and deeds their only true anxiety; sinning against God and betraying His love the only real tragedy of their lives. It is the love of God that makes the saints saints, and is the very essence of sanctity or holiness.
It is, in turn, the secret to their joy and the love of their neighbor. The love of God is the source of the saints’ energy, heroic virtue, and joy. Whatever any particular saints’ occupation, whatever their special charism or mission, what each have in common is that the love of God is the defining reality of their being.
Now this is the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. We take St. Thomas Aquinas very seriously here, as we should, and so it is necessary, I think, before I continue on to see if St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with what I have said so far. And, of course, I believe he does. In the secunda secundae (or the second part of the second part) of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas describes charity as one of the three infused theological virtues, along with faith and hope. Charity is, in a word, friendship with God and it is this friendship or love of God that is what I am pointing to as what is common to all saints. He identifies charity as the highest virtue, for it is charity which unites us to God in himself as our perfection and last end. All other virtues either only predispose us to union with God, or order us to God, but not in himself. So moral virtues like courage, temperance, and justice properly order our will and appetites to created things, preventing us from being ruled by our fears or having inordinate attachments to pleasure, and properly directing our attention to the good of our neighbor. All these prepare us to love God by detaching us from an excessive love to creatures and breaking us of habits that will keep us selfish and hard of heart.
And faith and hope, as theological virtues, orient us properly toward God, but not in himself. They only attain God according to the truth received by our intellect or the good that we will receive from Him that is the desire of our will. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, “ . . . Charity attains God Himself that it may rest in Him, and not that something else may accrue to us from Him.” And without charity, all the other virtues will fall short of their true and full perfection, for only by being directed and informed by charity do they reach God. We can understand, then, why St. Paul is so anxious to impress on the Corinthians the importance of charity or love, above all else: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
I want to stop here and note how difficult it can be to absorb Scripture’s insights on love or St. Thomas’ teaching on charity. Both charity and love are words in common parlance, but they refer to quite different things in ordinary speech. When we hear the word charity, we think of working at a soup kitchen or giving to the Red Cross. Like the word “philanthropy,” “charity” can seem to refer to a kind of detached benevolence. But this is precisely not what St. Thomas Aquinas is talking about; he is talking about a bond of friendship between us and God, a bond of friendship so strong that it transforms everything about us. This is also what St. Paul is attempting to describe in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, that favorite reading for Catholic weddings which concludes with St. Paul saying, “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
It is hard to find a suitable analogy within ordinary human experience for what St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Paul are talking about when they speak of love. Given our generally anemic conception of friendship in contemporary society—how often, for instance, do we hear the phrase “we are just friends”, as if friendship were some pale substitute for romantic or erotic love—romantic love might still be the best and most intuitive analogy. And yet the analogy falls short. The reality of the love of God, charity, is such that it is not about feelings, although it can and often does include the most powerful feelings of love and union with God. We can think here of Bernini’s sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila in divine ecstasy. So when I say “love is not about feelings,” it is not my intention to denigrate the important role that emotions can play in spiritual discernment or the spiritual life. But ultimately divine charity is transformative of everything—our intellect, our will, and our abiding character. With divine charity comes a complete reorientation of our life, our person, and our very being to the divine lover. In more traditional language, the virtue of charity informs all our virtues, orienting them all to God, and even makes possible the reception of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which give us a supernatural mode of acting beyond what is purely possible for us as human beings. So if we are to use romantic love as an analogy—or, indeed, any natural human experience—we must be aware of its inadequacies, and how far short it falls of the reality that is the love of God, the love of God that is at the heart of being a saint.
Divine charity is a gift, which is the meaning of St. Thomas’ description of it being “infused.” St. Thomas puts it this way: “ . . . Charity cannot be in us naturally . . . but [only] by the infusion of the Holy Ghost, Who is then the love of the Father and the Son, and the participation of Whom in us is charity.” (ST II-II, q. 24, a. 2) To put it in more intuitive terms, we can only love God with the love which he has placed in us. So, while we are called to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength (Deut. 6:5), it is God who has first loved us (1 John 4:19). The initiative is God’s, and we respond to God’s love by returning the love which he has shown us. This should make a lot of sense, for it is, in a way, the only way we are able to give anything to God. God first gives it to us, and then we return it to Him. There is nothing that we have not received (1 Corinthians 4:7), and when we give gifts—whether it is the gift of praise and thanksgiving, or even the bread and wine of the Eucharist itself—it is only a return to the Lord (Psalm 116:12). How much more is this true of the supernatural gift of charity that is the bond of friendship with God?
The essence of charity, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is embodied more in loving than in being loved. But because of our very nature as created beings, we must begin with being loved. God is, if you will, the first lover as much as he is the first mover. Our love will always be a response to first being loved. There is great benefit, therefore, to our constantly calling to mind the love of God in our lives, all those events in our lives that are for us signs of God’s love. Without the eyes of faith, these moments can easily pass us by. And even if we have noticed them, it is easy to forget the tender love of God for us from moment to moment, in the hectic crush of the obligations of the day, and especially when we are going through a particularly intense time of suffering. We need constantly to meditate on the love and goodness of God, and thus memory should pervade our prayer. We should remember—as indeed we do in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—God’s presence to us, his saving acts. We remember what God has done in our lives—the various ways he has called us, intervened in our life, and exhibited his loving care; we recall how he has loved us through the people that have, whether for a long or short time, been a part of our lives. And our remembering is not simply personal, but communal. Our memories include the stories of our parents and relatives, and we should call to mind God’s saving work in the life of the Church and recorded in Scripture.
I’d like to briefly meditate on a passage of Scripture. “Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.’ Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following Him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.” (John 20:1-10)
I have chosen this passage from Scripture for a very particular reason: so that we might meditate on a very particular detail of this passage that is often overlooked. There are three important characters in this Scripture passage. There is St. Peter, the most visible of all the disciples in the Gospels, whom we know well. Then there is St. Mary Magdalene, patroness of our Dominican Parish in Berkeley, who was possessed by seven demons and whom we also know as the “apostle to the apostles” because of her role in bringing the good news to the eleven. And then there is—well, we take him to be John, the Son of Zebedee, but he is not here (nor anywhere in the Gospel of John, for that matter) clearly identified as such, but instead referred to as the “beloved disciple,” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” “The beloved disciple” has been identified with the apostle John in the tradition, going back to St. Irenaeus in the second century, but the Gospel itself never makes the identity of the beloved disciple explicit. Why? Biblical scholars, as you might imagine, have their opinions. A common argument is that the author, whether the apostle John or someone else, wished for his own reasons to remain anonymous. A more fundamentalist reading of this Gospel passage might argue that the description “the one whom Jesus loved” should be taken literally; that, yes, the beloved disciple was Jesus’ favorite, the one whom he particularly loved. And this does make a certain amount of sense. After all, the beloved disciple sticks with Jesus even when the rest of the disciples have fled and Simon Peter has denied Him; he reclines next to Jesus at the Last Supper, and it is he to whom Jesus presents his mother.
But even as a boy the fundamentalist position that the beloved disciple was Jesus’ favorite, seemed rather wrong. After all, aren’t parents supposed to love their children equally, and if parents aren’t supposed to play favorites, certainly that should be even more true of God! How could Jesus have a favorite disciple? And while it might be true that the author of the fourth Gospel wished to remain anonymous, this only explains why he is not identified by name, not why he is given the description “the beloved disciple.” More and more I have become convinced that “beloved” describes the evangelists’ sense of his own most fundamental identity. That is, more significant than giving us his name, he provided us with the one description that he believed really spoke to who he was. Having met Jesus and experienced his love for him, this disciple of Jesus understood that nothing identified him so much as the fact that he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The intent here, I suggest, is not so much to express an attribute that no one else possesses, but to express the heart of his own being. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul expresses something similar: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20) Once we, too, have experienced the reality of the love of God and allow that encounter with the love of God to take root in us, we realize that nothing describes who we are so much as “the one whom Jesus loves.” The fact that we are the beloved of God becomes the most important reality of our lives.
The reality of our being loved by God, this most fundamental fact which forms the very heart of our identity, is made particularly known in the person of Jesus Christ. But it goes back to the very fact of our existence, God’s decision to create and to create each one of us. He had no need for anyone or anything, for God is supremely happy and content of Himself. Since He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he is himself a communion of persons, and so he has no need of our love or companionship. Nevertheless, God chose to create us and, indeed, to create an entire universe, because he wished to share his being and his goodness. He has done this with human beings in a special way, creating us in his own image and likeness, and offering us—if we don’t reject the invitation—to share his own divine life for all eternity. God has quite literally loved us into existence, and we are quite literally made for Him. So the most fundamental truth about ourselves, that is, our most fundamental identity, is that we are God’s beloved.
This same love has stopped at nothing to unite us with Himself. He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from our own self-imposed misery and to restore our friendship with God. We all know the Scripture: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever should believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) There is a reason that this is the Bible verse that you will see in the oddest places—on signs at baseball games, on bumper stickers, or on a billboard as you drive down the freeway. It beautifully sums up the meaning of our Christian faith. The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross was a demonstration of the powerful love of God for us: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Or, as Pope Francis put it in his message for Lent this year: “God’s becoming man is a great mystery! But the reason for all this is his love, a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved.” (Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2014)
Knowing that we are loved by the all-powerful, all-knowing author of all things ought to give us pause. We ought to take some time—and preferably not just once, or occasionally, but frequently—to appreciate this tremendous fact. How many hours of prayer could contemplation of this one truth about ourselves and our loving God take up? This is the beginning of a lifetime of prayer. I can think of no analogy that does justice to this amazing truth. You might think of your favorite athlete, movie star, politician or historical figure, and imagine that that person not only knew you existed, but was personally invested in everything that happened to you, was always looking forward to spending time with you, and thought you were the most important thing on the planet. But even with this analogy we still haven’t come close to appreciating the fact that God himself loves us with a love that is literally beyond our comprehension in its extent, purity, and intensity.
And just as startling as the one who loves us is for what reason he loves us: for no reason at all! God has given us everything we have and everything we are, so literally there is nothing that we can offer him—we cannot possibly deserve God’s love. Old pagan notions of sacrifice assumed that deities were somehow in need of something, but we know that God is perfectly content in himself. There is no hope of “let’s make a deal” with God. Our only move is to respond to God with thanksgiving and gratitude, and to take up the love that he has shown us and make it our own. There is a story that Gabriel Amorth relates in his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story. An exorcist friend was engaged in a very difficult exorcism, and has an occasion—generally a bad idea, Amorth ventures to add—to converse with the possessing demon. The exorcist asks: How is it that you dare to defy God? For God is the creator, and we only exist because of Him. Isn’t your cursing God like one of the zeros in the number 100 turning to the one and saying “I don’t need you?” But the zeros cannot be what they are without the one. At this the demon no longer wishes to continue the conversation. For us, the moral of the story is that we have nothing that has not been given to us—and this includes our very existence! So there is no way that we can deserve God’s love, and this only serves to underscore the miracle of his care for us.
The reality of the incredible love God has for us is transformative, and the more and more we meditate on this love, the more we allow that love to permeate our being, so that we not only realize our inmost identity as the beloved of God—recognizing that we, too, are the “beloved disciple”—but then we allow that being loved to be the principle of everything that we do; we make living out the mystery of love in which we are held our one priority, just as the saints have done. We desire to perform every activity, utter every word, think every thought in accordance with that love. We burn with the desire to return God’s love; we are eager to show God’s love to our neighbor, for we understand that our neighbor, too, is loved by God. Thus we love our neighbor for God’s sake. And we (and this might be unbelievable if we did not have the example of the saints!) become more and more willing to endure suffering, since suffering unites us with the God who became man and suffered for our sake; and we become eager to embrace penance as a means of purifying our love for God, detaching ourselves from earthly pursuits and cares, and gradually overcoming our egoism to love freely and fully.
Such a need to purify our love tends to be quite foreign to our modern mindset. Television, movies, and contemporary fiction all paint a picture in which loving is something natural and effortless, or if it involves any effort, it is only because of external forces that keep lovers apart. It is never the lovers themselves. But for anyone who has worked to have an intimate relationship of any kind, once the initial newness or romance of a relationship wears off, the reality of sin and the limitations of our love begin to emerge. We start to experience the many ways in which we can be self-serving, indifferent, or lukewarm in our loving. Truly loving, that is, truly performing acts in which we will the good of the loved one for their own sake, requires constant effort and often entails real sacrifice of our own needs and wants. How many parents go without sleep to care for their newborn, or give up their own comfort to save for their children’s futures? How many spouses heroically care for one another as they age? How much can it cost us to give up our anger, fear, and hatred to forgive someone who has done us a serious injustice?
I went to a Catholic Family conference a number of years ago, and heard a wonderful talk by an aging deacon. He turned to the married men in the audience and told them that love had a lot less to do with having romantic feelings or sharing physical intimacy. “That can be all about you,” he said. “Love has more to do with getting up off the couch and helping with the vacuuming. That is about her.” Aquinas defines love as “Volo te esse et te esse plene,” that is, to say in our words and our actions, “I will that you be, and that you be fully.” This is, as you might recognize, St. Thomas Aquinas’ use of John 10:10: “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” When we love, we imitate the selfless love of our Lord. We will another’s good, regardless of whether it pleases, gratifies, or benefits us in any way. But our will is not necessarily inclined to this. We must train our will; we must train our heart to love authentically if we are to become saints. This is growth in holiness.
It is by cultivating the moral virtues that we purify our loving. Without courage or fortitude, our love would constantly be subject to our fears, so that anything fearful would prevent us from freely giving ourselves to God and our neighbor. Without temperance, our love would be submerged in our quest to satiate our desires; love would take a backseat to pleasure-seeking and the fulfillment of our wants. Without prudence or justice, our love would never be a response to the truth of things, to what is real. So the moral virtues are not dispensable. They give proper order to our love, they purify our resolve, and they free us to give of ourselves fully. But notice that they are not ends of themselves. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas means when he speaks of charity being the form of all the virtues. The moral virtues serve charity. If we neglect charity, we have given up the very aim of the moral virtues in the spiritual life. We exchange moral virtues, habits which allow us to love well, for shining, splendid vices. Did you know that virtues can turn into vices if they are not properly directed? If you don’t believe me, listen to G.K. Chesterton: “When a religious scheme is shattered, it is not only the vices that are let loose. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 3) We may think of the damage justice without mercy has done, or perhaps courage without prudence, or compassion without truth. All of the virtues must be united to one another and to the love of God. Put another way, our spiritual goal is not simply being sinless. Our divine destiny is to be in loving union with God in the heart of the communion of the saints. Of what benefit is moral perfection if it is not united to the love of God?
Charity is an infused virtue, but we only grow in charity when we make use of it. God grants an increase of charity whenever we act with great love. This means that anything we do can become spiritually beneficial and can help us to grow in charity if it is done with love. The same ordinary duties we perform each day can be of great spiritual benefit if we attempt to do them with devotion, with an eye to growing in love. This was a constant theme in St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual direction. In whatever state of life you have chosen (or has been chosen for you), there are countless opportunities to grow in intimacy with God. We do not need to become desert hermits or missionaries in Africa to become saints. Mother Teresa emphasizes this same point when she says, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love.” It is easy to think that spiritual growth means accomplishing extraordinary things or working through a long list of penitential practices. But it is far simpler than that—perhaps not easier, but simpler! Each day’s opportunity to grow in holiness, to become a saint, to intensify our love for God, begins the moment we wake.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, you sent your Son into the world to save us from Sin and bring us to everlasting life. Grant us, we pray, that following the inspirations of your grace, we may constantly grow in your love, and so be counted worthy to live and reign with all the saints in heaven. We ask all this through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.